As the development and diplomatic communities gear up for the UN General Assembly, its attention will inevitably turn to the progress—or lack thereof—on reaching the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). While the SDGs address a variety of issues and challenges, the promotion of governance—and particularly anti-corruption measures—is arguably the ultimate key to sustainable development.
But what is governance, and how should it be attained? SDG 16 defines it as “the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all, and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels.” In other words, improving citizen-centered governance, in which citizens are placed at the heart of government decision-making.
Without this focus, governments will continue to miss core milestones that are central in achieving other SDGs. If government officials do not consider the needs of citizens when it comes to education, food, urban planning and infrastructure policy then government will constantly miss the mark in achieving real progress to address citizen concerns.
Opaque government decision-making and limited government accountability are the underlying issues of subpar development outcomes. The provision of public services such as clean water and public safety is a core function of a legitimate government. To this end, strong institutions must be established and government processes streamlined in order for citizens to have the easy access to government.
In order to tackle the root cause of these issues, it is imperative to focus on improving government interactions with citizens and ensuring citizens have the ability to hold government accountable. If governments don’t take this role seriously, challenges like eliminating poverty and improving education will not be addressed in an effective and sustainable manner.
Sounds simple, right? Of course, it’s not exactly that straightforward. Governing is tough—and it should be tough. It entails balancing the demands of a variety of stakeholders with many different views. If governing is easy, that is a sign that the government is not engaging with citizens.
Citizens have varying interests and needs. Recognizing this challenge is imperative to ensuring that the relationship between a government and its citizens rests on a foundation of trust. While it’s easy to yield to the temptation to simply blame politicians and pronounce the government useless, citizens must also uphold their end of the bargain. To this end, citizens must reflect upon how they are attempting to solve problems in their own communities, and whether they are holding government to account in an effective way, or simply giving in to pessimism without taking action.
There are a number of relatively simple ways that citizens can hold government accountable and be part of the solution: attending town hall meetings, joining local government committees or proactively engaging their elected officials. Even in closed and closing societies, information technologies offer opportunities for citizens to monitor government actions. Civic engagement should also take place outside formal democratic channels through bodies such as school boards or housing associations, where corruption also flourishes, and where citizens have an opportunity to gain “small-p” political skills that are transferable to the local and national levels.
Another key hurdle to citizen-centered governance is the lack of transparency and accountability which both creates and results from corruption. Crooked practices can permeate all levels of government and manifest in a variety of forms, from petty bribery to grand corruption. Corruption stymies democratic development, corrodes public trust and responsiveness to citizens’ needs. The impact of corruption is felt throughout society, hindering the participation of citizens in government, reducing the quality of service delivery and impeding economic development.
In order to correctly combat corruption, it’s vital to understand not just where it exists, but where it has the potential to arise. This approach was the impetus for the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Vulnerabilities to Corruption Assessment tool (VCA)—a mechanism which engages reform-minded political leaders, civil society and citizens in the process of identifying and addressing weaknesses in government processes that leave the system susceptible to corruption. The tool is grounded in the belief that if government and citizens are aware of these vulnerabilities, they can better combat corruption and improve accountability to and engagement with citizens.
Improving government processes to spotlight corruption will help in achieving sustainable development. Until principles of democratic governance such as increased transparency and accountability are adopted by governments, attempts to achieve true sustainability will be little more than band aids on a serious wound.
About the author: Rima Kawas is the Director of Governance and Collaborative Learning at the International Republican Institute (IRI). Prior to joining IRI, Kawas had extensive experience working in both the private and in the public sectors, working in both city and state government, including as a Senior Policy Advisor to former Governor Tim Pawlenty. Kawas holds a master’s in public affairs from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs and was a Humphrey School Policy Fellow.
Photo by Dr Makete Lab via Unsplash.